#ThrowbackThursday: 1904 blaze destroyed Meriden Town Hall
#ThrowbackThursday: 1904 blaze destroyed Meriden Town Hall
February 22, 2017 06:00PM
Editor’s note: This week marks the anniversary of the Meriden Town Hall fire of 1904. The following account is drawn from a story that story by Molly Callahan that was first published on Feb. 12, 2015.
MERIDEN — Headlines in the Feb. 14, 1904 edition of the Meriden Daily Journal read “Town Hall Destroyed This Morning” and “Beautiful Structure Completely Gutted, Leaving Only Its Bare Wall Standing” alerting readers of the massive blaze that destroyed what was then known as Town Hall.
The Valentine’s Day fire broke out on a Sunday night and wreaked havoc for local fire and police officials at the time. According to a Meriden Morning Record article from the next day, “the fire spread with wonderful rapidity and practically destroyed the costly structure within a few seconds,” despite “the determined efforts of the combined fire fighting forces of the city.”
At a time when the only fire alarms were those sounded by hand throughout the city, the blaze was likely noticed around the same time by Chris Wuterich, a night watchman at the building, and former Police Capt. Bowen who was on duty at the police headquarters in the basement of City Hall.
The Morning Record article says that just before 5 p.m. on that Sunday, Wuterich noticed “smoke in the northwest corner ... In an instant a sheet of flame encircled the gallery wall on the north side.” The watchman broke down one of the south doors and ran downstairs to the police station where he met Capt. Bowen, who had already sounded the alarm.
The paper credits Bowen with first discovering the fire, after hearing glass breaking over his head, then seeing a bright light in the corner of the gallery.
“In an instant there was a flash and he observed that the fire had shot toward the east end of the main auditorium,” it says. Capt. Bowen sounded the alarm one minute after 5 p.m.
Capt. Bowen released the lone prisoner from the cells as well as the “half dozen tramps” in the lodging room before turning his attention to Police Department furniture and records. He and other officers removed records, books and furniture, carting them to the street and later to the principal’s office at Meriden High School (now the Board of Education building) across the street where they were salvaged. The loss to the police department was at least $3,000, the Morning Record estimated, which according to the U.S. Labor Department Bureau of Labor Statistics, would be more than $71,000 today. The loss of the building as a whole was valued at more than $125,000 at the time; or nearly $3 million today.
The Meriden Record and those first responders in the story put the building at a total loss from the beginning.
“To save the building from destruction was an impossibility,” it reads. “At the start, the water pressure was somewhat low, but when the steamer began work the service was greatly improved. It was a case of ‘burn itself out.’ It is doubtful if the best fire department in the country could have handled the fire to any better advantage ...”
Former Meriden Deputy Fire Chief Dave Bowen in 2015 echoed the newspaper’s estimation, adding that technology now would better protect against something like this from happening again.
Bowen, who said he’s not aware of any relation to the late Capt. Bowen, explained that the steamer referenced in the 1904 article was a steamer pumper: a steam-powered water pumping system.
“You’d shovel coals into them, and steam would run the piston pump. That’s the kind of pumpers they would have had,” he said. Horses would have pulled in the steamer pumpers, with firefighters setting them up at the water supply — a supply that was transported through the city on wooden conduits. Separate horse operations would pull in hose wagons to be hooked up to the pumper wagons. Now, firetrucks carry pumping capacity as well as their own hoses.
The alarm system has also seen major upgrades in the past century.
“Early detection of fires then was tough,” Bowen said. “They didn’t have smoke detectors then, so by the time you hear about it and rally everybody... it’s just different now.” Other upgrades include fire-grade doors which do more to contain fires to smaller areas within the building for longer amounts of time. “Looking back on it, there were different building requirements than what we have now. Early detection can really make all the difference in the world.”
According to a 2004 Record-Journal article on the 100th anniversary of the fire, two theories began to circulate at the time about what started the fire. The first was that an electrical wire brushed against a decoration for the upcoming Elk’s Club fair. The second theory, later considered more credible, was that a gas jet ignited a streamer set up for the fair.
Jan Franco, former Meriden Public Library historian, offered another rumor she’d heard.
“They had decorations up there — bunting on the front of the building — and maybe it’s just gossip, but the story goes that the bunting caught fire from someone’s cigar,” she said.
It appears to be a theory tossed around at the time of the fire as well. Then-Fire Marshal Bloomfield, in an interview with a Morning Record reporter, said that though he hadn’t fully investigated the causes yet “from what I have learned from talks with firemen I am of the opinion that a lighted cigar stub or cigarette carelessly thrown was responsible for the conflagration.”
Wuterich, the watchman, however, said in a separate interview, “It may be that a cigar butt did it, but I doubt that theory as I would have noticed it before it had done any damage.”
The fire destroyed what had been the second iteration of the building in Meriden. The first, built in 1855, was on a triangular plot bounded by East Main, Liberty, and Norwood streets. It was enlarged through the years, and found structurally unsound in 1889, when it was razed to make way for the larger structure that stood on the same plot where City Hall currently stands. After the 1904 fire, City Hall — largely as it’s visible now — was completed by 1907 with a $212,000 appropriation at the time, or more than $5 million now.